Redistricting Reform, Take Seven

Jade Agua is one of about 25,000 applicants still in the running to be selected for the first-ever Citizens Redistricting Commission. Some say it could be the first step toward righting California's ship of state.

The 26-year-old assistant director of Asian Pacific American Student Services at USC, and an Asian American herself, said she applied to be on the commission when she saw the applicant pool was about 90 percent white and male.

"I feel like some Californians are blaming the state now. But really, we live here too, and we're stakeholders," said Agua, who lives a few blocks off of Sunset Boulevard in Los Feliz. "This is one way that we can contribute to turning California around."

In the historic November 2008 election, California voters narrowly approved Proposition 11. The amendment to the state constitution gave the authority to redraw political district boundaries of the state Senate, Assembly and Board of Equalization to the new citizens commission being created right now. In a few weeks, a second round of applications will come to a close.

Much is at stake as the arcane but politically significant process of redistricting moves forward. Redrawing the state's political map could break up a system almost completely dominated by safe districts, in which the incumbent party runs no risk of being defeated. Many attribute the state's political gridlock to that frozen electoral system.

The system currently favors Democrats, but California's Republican party has also been comfortable with the status quo. While it leaves them in the minority, the GOP's seats are at least guaranteed and enough to block the two-thirds majority necessary to raise taxes and unilaterally pass budgets. Until now, legislative districts have been drawn up by a collusion of both major parties via various legislative commissions.

Republicans could pick up a few more seats if districts are redrawn under the new system. But Democrat-leaning minority and economically disenfranchised communities could also be empowered by a fairer redistricting process. And political experts agree basic democracy in California will be well served if the Citizens Redistricting Commission proves successful.

Approval Rating for California Legislature

The amount of finger-pointing toward Sacramento has grown steadily over the last several years. The approval rating of the state legislature has plummeted to a record-low 9 percent among likely voters, according to the most recent Public Policy Institute of California poll. Governor Schwarzenegger's approval rating in the poll, 25 percent, is only a few points above Governor Gray Davis' before the latter was recalled in 2003.


And with approval ratings of state government at historic lows, the new citizens commission will be a crucial test of California's direct democracy. Can voters use the power of the initiative process to realize big, structural changes to California government and pull the state off of life support?

"My personal opinion is that the passage of Proposition 11 represents the single most significant change in California politics in at least 10 years," said Mark Pruner, president of the California Republican County Chairman's Association. "Because we know that much of what happens under the dome in Sacramento is a product of safe districts."

Kathay Feng, one of the authors of Prop 11 and the executive director of California Common Cause, said the 14 commissioners who are ultimately selected will not have any direct self-interest in the outcome of the new political maps. "They have to follow really strict rules about openness and transparency of the hearings. So no more off-the-record meetings. No more deals that are done behind closed doors," Feng said.

The question remains: how will a citizens commission—made up of five Democrats, five Republicans and four members who are independent or hold other party affiliations—do things differently than a committee of self-interested legislators? What will change?

For Agua, the goals are fairness and diversity. "I would like to avoid breaking up communities of color, avoid drawing around communities of low socioeconomic status in a way that the lines will be able to divest and redistribute power," she said.

Why is redistricting so controversial?
The history of redistricting in California has been tumultuous and a source of contention for more than 40 years. The state Supreme Court has twice been forced to oversee the process, because it was so hotly disputed between Republicans and Democrats.

Redistricting is such a contentious process because it often devolves into gerrymandering, where the political party in power redraws district boundaries in strange shapes to benefit its candidates in future elections.

"It's bad because it allows the politicians to choose their voters as opposed to the voters choosing their politicians," — Bob Stern, President of the non-partisan Center for Governmental Studies

  • Six times different groups have tried to reform the redistricting process since the early 1980s. Each has failed.

  • Legislature-controlled redistricting benefits the party in power. When the state Supreme Court took over redistricting during the 1990's, Republicans regained a majority in the state assembly after about 25 years of being in the minority.

  • Gerrymandering reduces competitiveness. In 212 California congressional elections from 2002 to 2008, only one seat changed party hands.

More competitive districts will translate to better representation, Feng said. "Maybe candidates will start talking to us more instead of buying 30-second ads that say nothing," she said. "And maybe, they'll be much more responsive once they're elected, because they'll know that they were put into office by voters and not just special interests who paid for those ads."

Asked if redistricting reform would stand to benefit Republicans more than Democrats, Pruner said, "The honest answer, of course, is yes. But I think that's only a little piece of what's going on. I really think that the current system hurts Democrats as well. I think the entire system is compromised and damaged and doesn't function as well as it should. So, the restoration of democracy in it's truer, better form. I think that's really what's happening here. I'm very optimistic about it."

Bob Stern, President of the non-partisan Center for Governmental Studies and an applicant to be on the redistricting commission, said the commission will have to comply with the Voting Rights Act, create districts of similar population size, and draw districts that are as compact as possible. As it stands the new redistricting commission will have 80 assembly lines, 40 state senate lines and 4 board of equalization districts to draw.

"It's going to be, I think, daunting for this commission having not done it before," he said. "So they're going to have to hire very good staff who are experienced and who know something about it."

Feng said she never anticipated more than 31,000 people would initially apply to be on the commission. She said if that level of participation is any sign of future engagement in the statewide public hearings that will help the commissioners redraw the districts, it's going to be "good for little 'd' democracy."

If the Citizens Redistricting Commission is the tugboat that will pull the California ship back into safe harbor, then the Financial Accountability in Redistricting Act (FAIR) is the torpedo that would sink that ship.

"You hold a public opinion poll and you ask people what they care about, I guarantee you one issue you will never hear from an ordinary person is redistricting," said Daniel Lowenstein, sponsor of the FAIR act and a UCLA law professor.

Lowenstein said he is trying to get FAIR on the November ballot to repeal the Citizens Redistricting Commission altogether and return the authority to the legislature. He said whether or not there is a lack of competitive elections in the state is a controversial question and doubts a citizens commission will fix it anyway.

"Presently we're in a ridiculous situation in which the process is going to be divided and done in two different places at great waste and great complexity," he said. 
"In fact they're creating a whole new bureaucracy that's completely unnecessary. Staffing it has been a nightmare. It's already clear it's going to go way, way over budget."

Complicating things even further is another initiative likely to be on the November ballot that would extend the commission's authority to redraw the lines of U.S. congressional districts, currently the purview of the state legislature.

The Center For Governmental Studies' Bob Stern said Lowenstein and other Democrats supporting the effort to repeal Prop 11 are not as concerned with the citizens commission itself as they are with extending its authority to congress. "They figure that putting up two initiatives, the voters will vote no on both of them," Stern said.

Mark Pruner agrees that is a likely scenario. "My sense is that given the mood of the voters now, there's very anti-government sentiment out there. So to let citizens have a voice in whatever way, is I think very much what the electorate wants to see happen," he said.

Whether or not the Citizens Redistricting Commission will actually work, whether it gets more authority in November or gets repealed, the initiative has the chattering class calling for the rest of the country to emulate California for the first time in a long time.

"Let every state emulate California's recent grass-roots initiative," New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote last week.

"And possibly people will be watching California to see if once again California can lead the nation in something positive, as opposed to something negative," said Stern.

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